Mustafi is beyond redemption something Arteta will soon realise.
Jese Lingard. Karius. Shkodran Mustafi. Nicolas Otamendi. These names all ring a familiar bell to the casual football fan. The one for alarm, crisis, a mistake, a daftness and exceptional error-making. They are all defenders, with one remarkable exclusion, whose jobs are to prevent the other team from scoring a goal. And they are all laughably bad at it. From Otamendi’s freewheeling errors within the perfect machine that is Manchester City to Karius’ cataclysmic lapses on one of the biggest nights in football, these players have been responsible for their teams dropping games they otherwise wouldn’t.
Enter Shkodran Mustafi, a prominent challenger for chieftaincy in the exclusive society of the Kariuses and Otamendis. Make no mistake: Mustafi is not a bad defender by any stretch of the word, not for 89 minutes of football anyways. But in the twilight of the 90th minute, whether the ball is with him or not, a perfectly sound (or even borderline world-class) Mustafi will transform without warning into a night beast of unparalleled braindead errors, big paws pawing at the back of an attackers shirt, clumsy feet dealing damage of a radius as big as Hiroshima’s on the pitch. Mustafi, like a repeat of history, is inescapable.
Arsenal might have an antidote these days, a secret potion to keep the night beast from appearing at a full moon. It is in the steely depths of Arteta’s eyes, a young talented coach that with the influence of a genius behind him. Mikel Arteta thinks that he can do the near-impossible: that he can kill all the malignant error-404 cells hiding beneath Mustafi’s sweat glands, an operation of such importance that it might require government assistance and huge media coverage.
“I don’t believe that at 27 you cannot improve certain aspects of the game; I really believe you can,” the Spaniard said before going on to hint that Mustafi is nothing new under the sun of soccer-land; not when Mustafian contemporaries exist at the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City. “I work with players like this and I have team-mates like this and there is always a moment where there is a click.”
A moment where there is a click. Can you catch that? A moment… a click. A click suggests that there is a gap somewhere: a gap in thinking, a blank that ought to be filled with whatever defensive actions Mustafi should be executing instead of raising his hand at the linesman as Wilfred Zaha bullied his way ahead to shoot down Arsenal’s Champions League hopes, an inability to see what is clear as the game swells backwards and forward, a space where a muscle memory from years of professional coaching should be, an instant of darkness in 90 minutes of daylight.
Mustafi appears to be what you have if aliens streamed football on TV, liked what they saw, and used their Universal Copy Machine to create a specimen of a footballer. A footballer without a navel or a memory of youth football, a finished product with an unforeseen and comedic bug in it. No one knows where Mustafi and Otamendi came from but Valencia fans claim they got them from Sampdoria and Porto. But did they, really?
Does anyone remember seeing them play elsewhere before? Are you sure there are videos of them playing youth football? (Don’t worry, once this is published, the aliens will go to work uploading a time-stamped grainy video in which if you squint you might see an outline of Mustafi and only 20 other players on the field.) It seems more likely that the owner of Valencia, Peter Lim, a man of immense wealth and connections, received a fax telling him to come to a certain location at midnight to pick up specimen 00X and 00Y. The specimens would be cold, pale and naked with icicles on chests full of synthetic extension hairs. They would be strangely inactive and wrapped around each other like fish, and they would be presented to the Mestalla crowd after a month of orientation and filling in the background checks. It would then be no surprise when they show up extremely on data radars across the continent. So much so Manchester City and Arsenal would be persuaded by their analysts into paying fortunes for their services.
If Arteta thinks Mustafi can be improved — if only slightly to an Otamendi level — then he might not have had access to see the warning labels which Mr. Lim peeled off their naked chests: WARNING. DEVELOPMENTAL VERSIONS. TO BE USED BY CLUBS WITHOUT BETTER DEFENDERS OR BY CLUBS THAT ARE VERY SUCCESSFUL. DISPOSAL POTENTIALLY HAZARDOUS.
That is not to say nothing good can come out of Nazareth. Otamendi is a significant part of Manchester City’s legendary centurions. Karius has minded the goalposts to a Champions League final. Mustafi has been part of a 22-game undefeated run. Even Jese Lingard has opened JLingz, a fashion line that provides gold-rimmed sunglasses, ripped jeans and other such accessories for ten-year-olds who want to look cool. In a high-functioning team, the errors of these players and fashion moguls can be minimized to a certain extent. They can be fantastic at providing vital blocks, interceptions, clearances, saves and wicked cool celebratory dances when it’s needed. What you must accept are the bugs that come with them, those dizzying moments in which it is perfectly legal to take a handgun and escort them out of the stadium to the street where they can have a taxi that will take them back to Area 51.
As long as Mustafi is at Arsenal, then it is appropriate that Arteta should attempt to coax the good out of him, to maximize his better side. That is the right thing to do. Maybe the Europa League games and the FA cup tie against Bournemouth are a clue as to the immediate use of the 27-year-old: maybe they show that Mustafi is less error-prone when his team is dominant with the ball and largely comfortable. High-pressure matches that demand everything you’ve ever learnt in football cannot be risked with the German. If Arteta does not understand this, then the calamitous back pass at Stamford Bridge will not be the last time he will see a Mustafian error.
When all is said and done, the ex-Valencia player represents a traumatic episode to many Arsenal fans and an embarrassment to the club’s sporting potential. Take a page out of the Jurgen Klopp textbook: sell him to a dry cleaning company, loan him to a team in Germany, hide him in the mascot costume if you must or use him as an anecdote for younger players — whatever you do, Mikel Arteta, Shkodran Mustafi must not play for Arsenal beyond this season.
An article by Agboola Israel